If you are a writer of fantasy or science fiction literature, the world is your oyster and its possibilities are limited only by the skilled abilities of your imagination. But what if your novels are couched in the language of realism – indeed make reference to the novels of Dickens imagined as one of the founders of the novel’s realist traditions – and yet are suffused with the striking coincidence, the visionary and the miraculous? What manner of fiction is this? Where can one’s tidying mind put it? Into what category?
The first step would be to realise that the father of the realist novel once described himself as a ‘Resurrectionist’ by which term I think Dickens acknowledged that his fictions are more than realistic descriptions that the wonder (and improbability) of their plot devices pursue a different purpose to a simple realistic description of the world (for that we need Zola). Dickens’ universe is a moral one where the more than human has a hand, that ‘more’ is more or less unnamed, but there is in the universe a working out towards the good that Dickens wants to celebrate.
The second step would be to ask why not and what if. The world may be God’s creation and saturated by the possibilities of grace, after all, this is how the world is seen by the majority of its inhabitants, if fitfully and under many different guises. Thus, it would be perfectly plausible to write novels that give meaningful attention to this space, without apology, running the risk of being accused of wishful thinking.
This is what the Irish novelist, Niall Williams, does consistently within the ‘traditional’ framework of a realistic novel. He offers you stories of the miraculous where the chain of unfolding events are suffused with grace and the miraculous, not, it must be said, to the exclusion of the tragic, the inhuman and the evil.
He is a marvellous writer and reading his, ‘Boy and Man’ is a moving and compelling experience. A grandfather is believed dead by his grandson who has gone in search, as a result, for the father he has never known. The story tells of the grandson’s life in Ethiopia, his first stricken love, and his return home to discover his grandfather not dead but after a period of prolonged coma, alive, and searching for his grandson. A search that is both mechanical – and gives a moving account of internet searching through sites devoted to the many people, for many reasons, who simply disappear – and miraculous.
In the background of each of the characters is an exploration of faith – simple trust and saintliness in some, a complex struggle with doubt, grief and loss in others – but I can think of no other popular living writer for whom this inner and outer conversation is such a natural part of the fabric of his characters lives – though Palo Coelho does come to mind, he is both more of a fabulist and didactic than Williams.
He is an exemplary teller of tales that carry emotional depth (and accuracy of insight) and yet this other, enfolded reality, of God and His doings and failings to do – the mystery of a world upheld in grace yet incomplete, flawed, human.